Reginald Dwayne Betts was 16 when he tapped on a car window with a gun and ordered a man out of his car. That carjacking got Betts 8 years in jail with some solitary confinement thrown in for good measure.
The ‘If you do the crime you must do the time’ crowd applaud such outcomes for teenagers. I’m in the camp that wonders why the juvenile justice system was bypassed, especially when Betts had no prior run ins with the law, committed a non-violent crime, and was an honor student at a magnet school. Okay, he had a gun he didn’t use. I know that trumps everything for some of you.
His time spent at the ‘big house’ wasn’t wasted. He took advantage of the education offered in prison and started honing his writing skills. Upon release from prison he’s written three books: Bastards of the Reagan Era, the 2010 NAACP Image Award winning memoir, A Question of Freedom, and, the poetry collection, Shahid Reads His Own Palm.
As if that isn’t enough, upon his release from prison he went right to work as an assistant manager of a bookstore in Maryland and went back to school where he’s now enrolled in the PhD Law Program at the Yale Law School. He has earned a J.D. from the Yale Law School, a Masters of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College’s M.F.A. Program for Writers, and a B.A. from the University of Maryland.
If there was ever a poster child for prison rehabilitation, Reginald Dwayne Betts is the one displayed proudly on the highway billboard.
Despite not given a chance to redeem himself as the child he was when he committed his crime, he was dumped in the adult trash bin only to feed off the penal crumbs and grow into his adulthood as a totally functional, rehabilitated extraordinary asset to society.
More importantly, he provides hope and incentive to every other incarcerated black male prisoner. They can see a contemporary example of someone who demonstrates that life on the other side is full of promise and opportunity when you pay your debt to society, have a vision, apply yourself, and take advantage of the rehabilitation offered in America’s prisons.
Damn, I wish this was the end of the story.
In February, Mr. Betts passed the Connecticut state bar exam and has been working as a public defender in New Haven, trying, as he put it in a recent essay, “to do something to halt the herding of young black people behind bars.”
Last week, Mr. Betts got a letter saying as much, referring him to Article VI of the Bar Examining Committee’s regulations, which states that “a record manifesting a significant deficiency in the honesty, trustworthiness, diligence or reliability of an applicant may constitute a basis for denial of admission.”
A committee composed of judges and lawyers is now reviewing whether Mr. Betts is of “good moral character.” Because he is a former felon, there isn’t a presumption of fitness to practice law. He has to prove it with “clear and convincing evidence.”
His incredible life is proof that a person can truly rehabilitate himself. But the Connecticut bar is sending the opposite message: that a felony is a life sentence.
Below is one of the first videos I did when I started the blog in 2010. It features Seifuddin M.A. Simpson who talks of his struggles finding work after prison despite earning a degree from Villanova in the process. He’s now a paralegal with attorney Clinton Johnson’s in Chester.